9 surprising things you probably didn't know about Michelle Yeoh

9 surprising things you probably didn't know about Michelle Yeoh
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  • Michelle Yeoh, 60, recently made history for being the first Asian actor to win an Oscar for best actress.

  • There are some things people might not know about the talented actor, however.

  • For example, Yeoh once practiced ballet and also nearly lost her life while filming "Supercop."

Yeoh attended London's Royal Academy of Dance as a teen.

Michelle Yeoh in Hollywood in 1997.
Michelle Yeoh in 1997.Hector Mata/Getty Staff

The actor is now best known for her acting chops and mastery of martial arts, but that wasn't always the case. Growing up, Yeoh practiced ballet and eventually attended the Royal Academy of Dance in London at age 15. But a back injury effectively ended the possibility of a ballet career, and she eventually pursued acting instead.

She won the title of Miss Malaysia in 1983.

Michelle Yeoh at the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant.
Michelle Yeoh won the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant.The Graham Norton Show

When Yeoh was 21, her mother entered her in the 1983 Miss Malaysia beauty contest, where Yeoh ultimately won the grand title.

In a February interview on "The Graham Norton Show," Yeoh said she only agreed to compete in the pageant to appease her mother.

"I did it to shut her up, because she wouldn't stop about it," Yeoh explained. "So we had a deal. If I do this, you are never going to do something like this again."

She once considered giving up acting after a serious injury on set.

michelle yeoh today
TPG/Getty Images

Yeoh told Elle last October that she'd once considered giving up on acting.

While filming the Cantonese movie "The Stunt Woman" in 1996, she injured herself during the shoot and almost broke her back, which led her to question her chosen career.

"I was in the hospital, and my girlfriends came in and said, 'What are you doing, girl?'" Yeoh recalled. "You're lying there, and you think, 'Okay, maybe it's time to think of something else. Do I go back to school? Do I do this or that?"

Quentin Tarantino, who was a big fan of Yeoh's, visited her while she was recovering. He broke down his favorite action sequences of hers frame-by-frame, which she said renewed her love for acting.

"I thought to myself, I do love this work," Yeoh added. "I'm not going to give it up. I'll just find ways to make it safer for myself."

She learned her lines for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" phonetically.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Directed by Ang Lee.Sony Pictures Releasing

The 200o film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" proved a challenging shoot for Yeoh for several reasons. Not only were the stunts demanding at times, but her character also spoke Mandarin, a group of Chinese dialects that the actor did not speak in real life.

To overcome that, Yeoh learned her lines, written in a historical style, phonetically, according to The New York Times. The film's Mandarin-speaking crew also stepped in to help Yeoh and other actors with pronunciation when needed.

Jackie Chan saved her life while she was performing a stunt in "Supercop."

jackie chan
Kiyoshi Ota / Getty Images

Yeoh had a brush with death while shooting a stunt during the 1992 film "Supercop," costarring Jackie Chan. The stunt in question involved Yeoh's character, Inspector Jessica Yang, hanging from the side of a van as it races through traffic-filled streets.

Yeoh was supposed to fall off the back of the van and onto a car, but that's not quite what happened.

"Everything went wrong," she told GQ. "The windscreen did not shatter. The things that were supposed to make it [break], it didn't. So Jackie couldn't get a handle on me. When you look, watch the outtakes, he scrambled over the windscreen and tried to hold onto me."

Chan tried to grasp her but only managed to catch a part of her shirt as she slid off the side of the car.

"As I rolled off, if he didn't give me that little extra jerk, I would've landed on my head first, and that would have been the disaster of my life," she recalled.


Yeoh was initially unhappy with the "Crazy Rich Asians" screenplay.

eleanor young crazy rich asians
Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Young in "Crazy Rich Asians."Warner Bros.

Not everything written in the screenplay adaptation of "Crazy Rich Asians" made it to the big screen. Part of it had to do with some insightful input from Yeoh, who wanted some changes made to her character Eleanor Young.

As the actor explained during an onstage appearance at Deadline's The Contenders event in 2018, she was initially unhappy with the film's screenplay, because her character was written as very "nasty, mean," and "not nice at all."

"I don't think that Eleanor comes from that motivation," she said. "She comes from the love of her son and what it takes to be the wife and the strength that's necessary when you put the needs of your family before your own."

Director Jon M. Chu had the script rewritten with Yeoh's feedback in mind.

"'I know all the key points you're talking about,' he told me and changed my mind," Yeoh added. "They rewrote the script with the understanding of what it means to have strength for all the women who were in the movie."

She mostly receives scripts meant for men.

Michelle Yeoh and Jackie Chan
Michelle Yeoh in "Everything Everywhere All At Once" and Jackie Chan.Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images / A24

While Hollywood is making some strides when it comes to gender and ethnic diversity, it has a long way to go. Many of the scripts Yeoh receives these days, for instance, are meant for men, the actor recently told MSNBC.

When directing duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert wrote "Everything Everywhere All at Once," they actually had Jackie Chan in mind to play the protagonist and Yeoh as his wife. But when Chan couldn't do the project, Kwan and Scheinert refocused the film on Yeoh instead.

"As an Asian woman, those kind of roles where you, as an ordinary woman, gets a chance to be extraordinary, that is such a precious, precious gem," Yeoh added. "And when I read it, all the years that I have trained as an actor, I'm given the chance in this one movie to show you what I am capable of. So, it was amazing to get that."

Co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert asked Yeoh to dial back her martial arts prowess for "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, winners of the Best Director award for ’Everything Everywhere All at Once’, pose in the press room during the 95th Annual Academy Awards at Ovation Hollywood on March 12, 2023 in Hollywood, California.
Daniel Kwan (left) and Daniel Scheinert win best director for "Everything Everywhere All at Once" at the Academy Awards on March 12, 2023.Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

For "Everything Everywhere All at Once," Kwan and Scheinert actually wanted Yeoh to dial back her martial arts prowess a bit, because her character, at least in some incarnations, wasn't a martial arts expert.

"In 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' I am the mentor," the actor told TODAY. "In this one, the Daniels came up to me and said, 'It's Evelyn Wang. She doesn't have a clue what she's doing.' Her hands know what she's doing, because she's jumped to the other universe and acquired her skill and jumped back. Her hands are doing all these crazy things, and my face is going, 'What the hell am I doing?'"


She and her mother remain very close.

Janet Yeoh, mother of Michelle Yeoh, celebrates after her daughter won in the best actress category during the 95th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, as seen in a live view event at a cinema in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, March 13, 2023.
Janet Yeoh, mother of Michelle Yeoh, celebrates after her daughter won in the best actress category during the 95th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, as seen in a live view event at a cinema in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, March 13, 2023.Vincent Thian/AP

Yeoh and mother Janet remain close after all these years. As the actor told TODAY, her mother even gives her fashion advice.

"If you're going to the Oscars, you must not wear pants," Yeoh recalled her mother saying. "When you wear pants, you look short."

Shortly after Yeoh made history by becoming the first Asian actor to win an Oscar for Best Actress on March 12, she FaceTimed her mother, who was at an Oscars viewing party in Malaysia with family and friends. The two blew kisses to each other.

"I so love my daughter, and she has made Malaysia proud," Janet said after the Oscars, according to the AP.

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